Governor Chris Christie damaged his credibility by skipping $2.4 billion of promised payments into New Jersey’s underfunded pensions, said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the state’s highest-ranking elected Democrat.
Under a 2011 measure approved with Sweeney’s help, Christie boosted government workers’ benefits contributions, raised the minimum retirement age for new hires and froze cost-of-living adjustments. The agreement came after Christie signed a law requiring the state to make gradually higher pension payments until it reached full funding in fiscal 2018.
Christie, 51, a Republican who may run for president in 2016, chose this year to cut pension contributions to balance the state budget after revenue fell short of his goals. He has called for another round of pension curbs as costs for employee benefits crowd out other state spending. Democrats who control the legislature won’t agree to any more cutbacks until Christie makes full pension payments, Sweeney said during an interview today at Bloomberg’s headquarters office in New York.
“There’s no credibility on his end now because he broke his word,” said Sweeney, 55, of West Deptford. “How can we do any more reforms when the first promise wasn’t kept?”
New Jersey voters give Christie his lowest net approval rating since August 2011, with 49 percent who like the job he’s doing and 47 percent who don’t, in a Quinnipiac University poll released today. His numbers declined as he became embroiled in an inquiry over possible political motivations behind intentional traffic tie-ups at the George Washington Bridge.
Revenue shortfalls and credit downgrades have dogged Christie, as well as a probe of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s financing of the $1 billion renovation of the Pulaski Skyway.
Sweeney said he was interested in the outcome of the investigation by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. They are looking at whether the agency acted outside its purview to benefit Christie when it appropriated money to fix the bridge between Jersey City and Newark. Sweeney said that whatever the provenance of the project, it’s a crucial one.
“Can you imagine if we’d shut down the Pulaski completely because it was an unsafe structure?” he said. “What kind of crisis that would cause?”
New Jersey’s pension deficit, which reached $53.9 billion in 2010 after a decade of skipped payments and expanded benefits, fell to $36.3 billion with Christie’s first-term pension and benefit changes. It then grew to $47.2 billion in 2012 as Christie made only partial contributions.
Christie’s spokesman Kevin Roberts declined to comment on Sweeney’s remarks, instead forwarding a video of Christie last week announcing the creation of the pension-study commission.
During a summer-long series of town hall-style meetings he’s dubbed the “No Pain, No Gain tour,’” Christie has said the state has suffered from bloated pensions for public workers.
“It is not sustainable,” Christie said Aug. 4 in Parsippanny during the appearance highlighted in the video. “We don’t live in a fantasy world and the fact is that unless there are changes made to the system itself and the benefits that it promises, we cannot tax our citizens enough even if we wanted to.”
Christie’s decisions have affected all of New Jersey’s residents except its richest, said Sweeney, who wants to increase taxes on millionaires to solve the budget woes.
Christie’s pension-payment cuts are the biggest mistake of his administration, Sweeney said during the hour-long interview. The governor also hasn’t spent enough to fix infrastructure, which is crimping growth in a state that is heavily invested in the warehousing and trucking industries, the Democrat said.